Although Cameroon has received praise for its military action to push Boko Haram out of the northern part of the country and neighboring Nigeria, Amnesty International is criticizing the Cameroonian security forces for crimes including extrajudicial killings, torture and holding prisoners in inhumane conditions.
In a report titled "Right Cause, Wrong Means," published late last week, Amnesty International said more than 1,000 people accused of supporting Boko Haram are being detained in terrible conditions, many in a prison called Maroua in the northern part of the country. Built to house 350 people, it is holding more than 1,500. Amnesty said up to eight people are dying each month in the prison due to poor conditions.
"There's lot of illnesses, there's malnutrition and it's dirty conditions and, as a result, in the prison between six and eight people are dying every month because of diseases linked to those conditions," said Stephen Cockburn, the deputy regional director for Amnesty International West and Central Africa. "And there are also some people, not everyone, but some people who are subjected to torture, as well."
FILE - A Cameroonian soldier guards at an observation post on a hill in the Mandara Mountain chain in Mabass overlooking Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Feb. 16, 2015.
Cockburn said most of those who are picked up after allegations of supporting Boko Haram are tried before a military court, where they're offered few legal protections and there is a lower threshold for evidence than in civilian courts. In addition, prosecutors are able to submit accounts from anonymous witnesses who cannot be cross-examined. More than 100 people, including women, have been sentenced to death by military courts in the last year, he said.
Amnesty also references the case of a 27-year-old man, who has been detained over messages sent to his friends joking about Boko Haram's methods to recruit young graduates. The organization calls for the nation's anti-terror law to be revised so that it clearly defines an act of terror in order to avoid people being arrested for making jokes in text messages.
In addition the report states that suspects detained in 2014 and 2015 by Cameroon's elite anti-terror unit, the Bataillon d'Intervention Rapide, were beaten with sticks, whips and machetes. Some died in custody.
Government rejects report
Government officials have rejected the report, saying that human rights groups were not nearly as vocal when Boko Haram killed about 2,000 Cameroonian civilians, according to the government spokesperson. The military spokesperson, Col. Didier Badjeck, also downplayed the report, saying troops did not commit the alleged abuses and had received specific training in the protection of civilians.
"You tell us that you have gone in our prisons and that certain people are innocent. Where is the proof?" Cameroon's Minister of Information Issa Tchiroma Bakary told reporters.
Badjeck added that the report relies heavily on non-credible witnesses.
Additional attempts by VOA to speak to Bakary and the embassy in Washington were not successful.
FILE - Screengrab from a Boko Haram video shows Boko Haram fighters parading on a tank in an unidentified town.
Amnesty met with officials and wrote a letter to the government in May requesting input prior to releasing the report. However, Cockburn said, no responses have been received so far, but there is some work being done to alleviate prison overcrowding.
"There have been some efforts to improve or to build new parts of the prison in Maroua," he said.
Amnesty goes out of its way to emphasize that the threat posed by Boko Haram is real and the fight against them is necessary, but it believes security forces have crossed a line in terms of respecting human rights.
"What we found in our research has been — although the security forces have been trying to pursue the right goals — they've been using the wrong means," Cockburn said. "They have committed very serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and subjecting people to unfair trials in military courts."
Potential for government action
Despite immediate rejections, the pressure to improve prison conditions and create better conditions for prisoners is mounting and the Cameroonian government seems ready to take steps to address these issues.
"There is a promise, just a few days ago, to open a commission of inquiry on human rights violations during the conflict," Cockburn said. "We have not seen the scope of that inquiry, we've not seen the terms of reference and we don't know how open and independent that would be, but that could be something."
If done properly, Amnesty says, the government can take this opportunity to turn things around. The organization called on the government to free those held with little or no evidence against them, and that "would also reduce the pressure on the prison system," Cockburn said.